Trail dedication, 5K pays tribute to slain hiker

BUFORD - Meredith Hope Emerson, the 24-year-old hiker found murdered Jan. 7 of this year, had a saying that is now emblazened on the back of a Right to Hike T-shirt. It reads, "My highs are high. My lows are low. But all in all, it's a pretty sweet gig."

Saturday morning at the Gwinnett Environmental and Heritage Center, after a cold night of much-needed rain, on display was a high and sweet gig all brought on by a tragic low. But according to Julia Karrenbauer, vice-president of Right to Hike, Emerson would have been one of the first people she knew that would have signed up for an event like what was transpiring.

"Meredith ran these trails with Ella and it's great to see all these dogs out here," Karrenbauer said to the crowd. "She would have liked nothing more than to be here. But we're celebrating her life and that is why we're here today."

The first annual Ella's 5K and fun run, sponsored by the local nonprofit Right to Hike, which was formed to honor Emerson's memory and raise awareness to hiking safety, started with hundreds of owners and their dogs setting out to walk in memory of the slain Buford woman. It concluded about 90 minutes later, as the sun began to peak through the clouds, when Suwanee's T.J. Bultema, his dog Cucuy and Winder's Rebecca Gregory crossed the finish line as the overall male and female winners of the 5K race.

But the event was about so much more than a race and raising money for a good cause.

"There is a lot of love here," said Joe Nickerson of the Union County Fire Department in delivering the invocation. "That is why this event is possible."

Union County is home to Blairsville, where Emerson went missing with her black Labrador retriever Ella back in January. Because of Emerson's love for Ella, who took some of her first runs with Emerson at the 700-acre Environmental and Heritage Center, the Labrador Society of the South decided to participate.

The Cumming-based group rescues Labrador retrievers and houses them until they can find them a good home. They had three dogs in tow looking for a home Saturday, and Ella was a rescue dog.

"Emerson had a Lab so when Right to Hike called we said 'of course we're coming,'" said Elena Pesavento, director of Labrador Friends of The South. "I'm very impressed with all the people who showed up with their dogs and this place is amazing."

Karrenbauer earlier told the Post that when Right to Hike got the idea for this event, the Environmental and Heritage Center was the first place they thought of because of how much Emerson loved the facility and its 12 miles of wooded trails.

According to Buford's Stephen Hill, a member of the centers' board of trustees, the partnership with Right to Hike and the Environmental and Heritage Center is just beginning.

"Right to Hike is a great organization and it's all about Meredith," Hill said. "What they've done is nothing short of phenomenal. This couldn't be more fitting."

Both Hill and Karrenbauer said the event would return to the center next year.

Brent Seyler, an officer with Right to Hike and a friend of Emerson's, said the day and the place couldn't have been more perfect.

"I can see why Meredith and Ella came out here because this is top notch Gwinnett County," Seyler said. "It's amazing. I'm speechless at how well this turned out. The reception of the community has been amazing and I just want to hug everybody that walks by."

And that's what Seyler did next - he went off and hugged someone. And those hugs continued at the event's conclusion as some of the members of Right to Hike officially dedicated "Meredith's Trail" with a plaque and a trail marker.

The marker reads, "Meredith Emerson. She hiked the path of life with Ella, love and wonder."

Karrenbauer said the trail in Meredith's name is now there forever, for everyone to remember her by, and as a place where people can come to honor the life of a woman who touched and inspired many.

"We'd like this to be the starting point of that," she said.

And now it is.

For more information on Right to Hike, visit www.righttohikeinc.com.